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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mid-Century Musings

Today I turn fifty, an auspicious day to launch out on a new adventure, albeit one I can start at my dining room table in my terry-cloth robe.

The half-century gives me pause. Many people I have known have already died, life's mid-point is almost certainly way behind me. What am I doing here? What about the time I have left? What will survive me?

My work has mostly been about helping architects connect with their constituencies using some form of print publicity, but with the demise of print I am feeling adrift. Just when you learn how to ride a bicycle someone invents the Matter Transportation Unit. So I gotta learn how to blog, or consign myself to the recycling pile. Because most of my work effort leaves me invisible, I just want a tiny bit of visibility. That is one of the reasons to blog, right?

Blogs have no deadline, no editor who emails for late, misplaced, or forgotten text; I just write about whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it, finish whenever I feel like it. My friend, the design writer Andrew Blum, is more skeptical; "Why give it away for free?" Perhaps the freedom of not having to write towards any end other than my own self-expression is worth the sacrifice; here I am at my dining room table after all, in my robe, without a clock or a watch in sight.

Recently I've been thinking about the design I loved as a kid; Matchbox cars, the Nut Tree in Vacaville, Expo '67 in Montreal, the Guggenheim Museum. Early seeds may be a good place to start. When I was a kid I sat in the standard-issue Danish modern chairs at the back of our local branch library and pored over Architectural Record. I learned how to read a floor plan and found an entire new world. I was particularly fascinated by the clarity of Gordon Bunshaft's house on Georgica Pond: long, rectangular and clad in travertine (not that I knew what travertine was). It felt like an eternal design - a house that would last forever. It didn't. The house was a landmark on my personal design journey as well as a landmark for the culture of design. (www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature176.htm)

I am not so sure whether it was architecture or design that first spoke to me - I didn't know the difference. One of my earliest memories of design is looking at a copy of House & Garden containing a feature on Mrs. Gilbert Miller's house on Mallorca, with interiors designed by Billy Baldwin (the decorator, not the celebrity!) Except here, I couldn't quite tell what was inside and what was outside. I asked my mother, but I don't think she understood. Years later when I bought Billy Baldwin Decorates I came to understand that blurring the distinction was the whole point.

These days I enjoy Elle Decor as much as Architectural Record. I am getting a little softer in my own mid-century. Some of the most innovative designs can be found in small shops like Roses and Radish in San Francisco, The Gardener in Berkeley, or Seigo in New York, and of course in cyberspace. It's not really about consumption, it's about beauty whenever you find it. That's why the Eameses endure, because they epitomize Design Faith. (www.eamesoffice.com) My favorite new hostess/"thank you!"/"I adore you!!" gift is a set of the Eames' stamps, which only cost $6.72 a sheet! (www.usps.com)

Dominique de Menil, the Houston art and architecture patron, understood that art, at its most challenging, pushes us into the unknown, and she intuited a connection between art and the divine. I feel that the two almost touch in the Rothko Chapel. (www.rothkochapel.org) The space is void of all religious symbolism, no dais, no altar, no iconography of any kind, just fourteen seemingly blank and stark and monochromatic paintings that mirror back the visitor's interior space. Two of the holiest places that I have ever been are Marfa, (www.chinati.org, www.juddfoundation.org) the town in West Texas that Donald Judd used as the backdrop for many of his installations, and that little quarter of Houston where the de Menils built their museum and chapel. (www.menil.org) It's easy to be disdainful of Texas because of its media stereotypes, but for me it holds some of the most breathtaking places where design and faith meet.

Architecture and design gave me a visceral thrill that propelled my imagination beyond our dull ranch house and our claustrophobic, fearful family life. Frank Lloyd Wright's seemingly infinite circular museum and Bunshaft's clear, light-filled travertine-covered rectangle planted the seeds of hope, and hope may be the beginning of faith.


Ken Lerch said...

Happy Birthday, Kenny! I look forward to the clarity of vision and poetry of your musings.

Unknown said...

Welcome to the 50s! You're entering with a bang! And I too look forward to reading your musings.

Unknown said...

kenny! thoughtful and insightful as always. glad to hear you can claim classic mid-century status now. :-) melody

Yelapa Rob said...

Welcome to the 50's.
Welcome to the blogosphere.
Welcome to the new depression.
What a time to be alive!


Yelapa Rob said...

Bunshaft Haiku:

Zellerbach Plaza.
Market and Sansome.
Too Brilliant.

MikeC said...

Happy Birthday, Kenny! What a way to celebrate! (I would have gone out and gotten wrecked...actually that's what I did do...) Your picture is thoughtful and your words even more so. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Happy Half-Century Kenny!

Your insights and wit are always appreciated. Now we'll follow the blog!

Unknown said...

Happy Birthday, dear Kenny! First, you will never be forgotten. Second, thank you for this blog - and for writing about the travertine house. I am going to love this!

iraw said...

Kenny - Happy Birthday!!!
I can't belive your officialy a classic and half way to an antique.
I'm 6 month behind right behind you and closing fast. I think the blog is great and I look forward to your unique insights.

Sarah Michaels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John J. Parman said...

This is really good, Kenny. I think you've found your medium.

Anonymous said...

Kenny, Thank you! I just spent a wonderful afternoon exploring your blog, websites and all. Your personal journey and how it intertwines with beauty, hope and faith touched me deeply.

MWM said...

Happy Birthday Kenny!
and welcome to the internets:)
Even more than being visible, a blog is motivation to keep doing what you do -in your case thinking and writing. It gives you a place to put these thoughts down and then come back to. And then there is the wonderful dialog that will develop between you and your friends, both old and ones you haven't yet met. This is one of the most amazing things that will happen.
It's always interesting to me to hear how people begin their appreciation of architecture. I think mine was influenced by my parent's building a house from a house and garden magazine plan in the 60's.
I'm looking forward to you finding your online voice and your musings here.
ps -I took my students to see St. John's on Friday and they fell in love with Breuer. I thought of you the whole day.

Helen said...

Nice one, Kenny! A very happy birthday from Oxford.

Anonymous said...

congratulations kenny on "just being" a wonderful person for 50years. blog on were listening.
or reading in this case. I doubt you will never have a forum.

jm144 said...


How exciting. You and Rick Redfern - bloggers! Maybe this will get some of the rest of us "oldies" into the blogoshpere.

Happily following your lead once again,